Democratic candidates face hard choices as 2020 field winnows

The Democratic presidential field is facing its first real winnowing as more than half a dozen candidates confront the increasingly real possibility that they could be left out of the next primary debate.

The fierce competition for money, air time and polling support is taking its toll on the record field of contenders.

In little more than a week’s time, three candidates — former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperKrystal Ball dismisses Rahm Emanuel's 'Medicare for All' criticism as a 'corporatist mantra' Trump says remark about Colorado border wall was made 'kiddingly' Colorado governor mocks Trump for saying he's building wall there MORE, Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeO'Rourke ends presidential bid Sunrise Movement organizer: Sanders, Warren boast strongest climate change plans Overnight Energy: Farmers say EPA reneged on ethanol deal | EPA scrubs senators' quotes from controversial ethanol announcement | Perry unsure if he'll comply with subpoena | John Kerry criticizes lack of climate talk at debate MORE and Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonPardoning war crimes dishonors the military The Hill's Morning Report - Fallout from day one of Trump impeachment hearing We still owe LGBT veterans for their patriotism and service MORE (D-Mass.) — exited the race after acknowledging the all but insurmountable odds in their bids for the Democratic nomination.

A recent Morning Consult survey underscored the degree to which the candidates struggled to stand out in the crowded field. Despite months on the campaign trail, Inslee and Moulton were the two least-known candidates after the first two series of debates, with 78 percent of Democrats saying they had never heard of Moulton or didn’t know enough about him to have an opinion and 71 percent saying the same of Inslee. 

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At least eight other candidates have found themselves in similar predicaments, including former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyDeval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne Delaney to take message to Iowa voters on Sunday with infomercial Bloomberg run should push Warren to the center — but won't MORE (D-Md.) and Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanThe Hill's Campaign Report: Late bids surprise 2020 Democratic field Tim Ryan endorses Biden for president Strategists say Warren 'Medicare for All' plan could appeal to centrists MORE (D-Ohio). They appear nowhere close to qualifying for the third primary debate in September and are faced with increasingly daunting polling and fundraising gaps between themselves and the field’s top-tier contenders.

“I think you’ll start to see resources dry up for some. I think you’ll see support and enthusiasm diminish and dry up for some. And that’s going to force them to make some decisions,” Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist, said.

Pollsters say the massive field of contenders has had a freezing effect on voters, many of whom are tuning in for the first time and feel overwhelmed by the number of options as the race heads into the fall. 

Some Democrats are eager for the field to shrink, believing that it’s past time for focus to fall on those considered to be top contenders — former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBudget official says he didn't know why military aid was delayed: report Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide READ: Foreign service officer Jennifer Williams' closed-door testimony from the House impeachment inquiry MORE, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSinger Neil Young says that America's presidents haven't done enough address climate change New poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Bloomberg, Patrick take different approaches after late entries into primary race Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne MORE (D-Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide Harris gets key union endorsement amid polling plateau MORE (D-Calif.), and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne MORE.

“It’s healthy for it to dwindle at this point,” Seawright said. “If we continue to bloody ourselves up and drag this out, I think we’ll do ourselves a huge disservice.” 

Hickenlooper has already launched a new campaign for the Senate, and Inslee will seek reelection to a third term as governor. Their early exits from the presidential field could ramp up pressure on some of the other low-polling contenders to follow suit. 

“Hickenlooper and Inslee had to get out because they had other races to run and win,” said Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative who has endorsed Harris in the primary contest.

Democrats badly want to take over the Senate, and at least two long-shot presidential contenders — Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockDeval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne Biden, Buttigieg condemn rocket attacks on Israel Press: Another billionaire need not apply MORE and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) — are viewed as top tier Senate candidates in their states with potential to beat the GOP incumbents.

But it’s possible that the massive field of contenders and the chaotic nature of the race could keep many long shots in, with the hope that anything could happen for those left standing when votes are cast.

“It’s an odd year, unlike any I’ve seen in my political life,” said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose upstart campaign was one of the biggest surprises of the 2004 Democratic primary.

“It’s way too early to tell who might win,” Dean continued. “We might be waiting until the Iowa caucuses for the apple cart to be upset, so my advice to candidates, even if you don’t make the next debate, so what? Even if you finish fourth in Iowa, you could still punch your ticket in South Carolina or Nevada. You’ve got a shot, and there’s an awfully long way to go.”

Some Democrats are skeptical that the Democratic field is on the cusp of truly narrowing. Sellers said that it would take one of the race’s higher-profile contenders — O’Rourke or Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandMaloney primary challenger calls on her to return, donate previous campaign donations from Trump Senate confirms controversial circuit court nominee She Should Run launches initiative to expand number of women in political process MORE (D-N.Y.), for example — dropping out to signal a real winnowing. 

“You have individuals who were contenders to be president of the United States when they announced –  the Gillibrands of the world, the Betos of the world. Until they decide to get out, it’s not a real winnowing,” Sellers said.

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Only 10 to 12 Democrats will likely qualify for the September debate. But at least eight others have little chance of making it: Bullock; Delaney; Ryan; Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa 2020 Democrats demand action on guns after Santa Clarita shooting Biden, Buttigieg condemn rocket attacks on Israel MORE (D-Colo.); New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioDeval Patrick enters 2020 race De Blasio slams Bloomberg run for president: He 'epitomizes the status quo' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Washington braces for public impeachment hearings MORE; author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson 2020 Democrats demand action on guns after Santa Clarita shooting Williamson announces poverty plan with support for universal basic income, minimum wage Yang seeks donations for 2020 rival Marianne Williamson: 'She has much more to say' MORE; Miramar, Fla. Mayor Wayne MessamWayne Martin MessamThe Memo: What the leading 2020 Dems need to do Wayne Messam raised this quarter for presidential run The Hill's 12:30 Report: Hunter Biden speaks out amid Ukraine controversy MORE; and former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.).

But some of those who don’t make the stage could still qualify for the fourth debate in October, likely keeping many candidates in the race for at least a few more months.

Two other candidates — billionaire philanthropist Tom SteyerThomas (Tom) Fahr SteyerNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne Ocasio-Cortez jabs 'plutocratic' late entrants to 2020 field MORE and Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne Saagar Enjeti: Yang's plan to regulate big tech misses the mark MORE (D-Hawaii) — are on the verge of qualifying for the September debate but still need to meet the Democratic National Committee’s requirement that candidates register at least 2 percent in four approved polls to secure their spots on stage.

Missing out on the next primary debate could come at a cost. Televised debates offer candidates the chance to pitch themselves in front of a national audience, and several contenders have said that they saw groundswells of support after appearing on the debate stage.

"If your campaign hasn't qualified for the third, you're likely not getting a lot of national coverage already," said Kelly Dietrich, a longtime Democratic consultant and the founder of the National Democratic Training Committee. "So now you're missing out on the one chance to have national coverage, to have Democrat primary voters listening and seeing you on their TV screens."

Despite the recent exits from the race and the looming debate qualifying deadline, some candidates insist that they will keep going. 

Delaney, who has been running for the Democratic nomination for over two years but whose candidacy has struggled to gain traction, told Boston public radio station WGBH on Thursday that he believes his odds will improve as the field narrows.

“I’m going to be in the race. I’m staying in the race,” he said. “The field gets smaller, the [pool of] interested Democrats gets larger, and they become kind of a more moderate thing, and that’s where I think all the work we’ve done is going to start paying off.”